Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Ticket Prices and the Arena Experience

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With a preview of tonight's Jazz-Blazers game all but unnecessary, Dave opts to tackle one of the more controversial Mailbag subjects of the day: rising ticket prices and the quality of the arena experience at the Rose Garden.

The Portland Trail Blazers play the Utah Jazz tonight in a 6:00 p.m. game televised on CSNNW. We just previewed the Jazz before Portland's 105-95 home loss to them. You can click through that link if you'd like to know more.

Cliff's Notes Version: Jefferson + Millsap against Leonard + Hickson = tons of defensive trouble on the interior for Portland. Mo Williams fricasseed Damian Lillard in the second half of the loss, leaving one to wonder if Lillard will be susceptible to every point guard that comes along or whether he'll be able to exact revenge one of these games. Without LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland's outlook isn't promising and there's little reason to expect a win. Hopefully it'll be a spirited game with as many offensive highlights as we've seen in the last two contests.

SLCDunk handles the Jazz coverage for you.

Your Jersey Contest Form for this game.

Portland Trail Blazers tickets

With that out of the way, in lieu of an extended and redundant preview we're going to tackle a Mailbag question. Here you go.

Dave,

I can't believe the Blazers are raising prices on tickets with the team in such a sorry state. I'm fed up and searching for any explanation that makes sense. After the Roy/Oden collapse tickets should be getting cheaper. Show some loyalty to your fan base, Blazers! Can you make any sense of this?

Aaron

I'm not sure I can soothe your frustration, nor is it my place to speak for the team in these matters really. Paying more money for anything is bad news. But I can see several angles from which the pricing adjustments the Blazers are planning make sense, particularly right now.

First, I'm guessing you're not a season ticket holder.

Between ticket specials and the secondary market you can get tickets to most games at a 50-80% discount nowadays. There's an old rule of thumb in sports marketing. Discount your souvenirs, discount concessions if you have to, but don't discount your tickets. As soon as customers start spending $5 to get into a game they're going to think that the game's only worth that much. That's a problem in itself, but when you have people sitting next to them who paid $20 for the same level seat and are locked into season plans, you've got an angry fan base on your hands. Who would buy season tickets on that basis?

This isn't an issue for me, as I'm outside the area, but I'll tell you truthfully that if one option allowed me to spend $2000 for two seats to home games (season tickets) and another option gave me every home game but the Lakers and Heat for $800 (discounts and re-sells), I'd go with the second option. For $1200 I can watch three games at home. It might be different if the Blazers were in championship contention, but if that were true those seats wouldn't be going that cheap anyway.

I think most people would agree with me on this. Therefore I'm not surprised that the Blazers are looking to stabilize ticket prices, eliminating the discount option. They'll still have various tiers of tickets, ranging from affordable back-row seats to exorbitant courtside chairs. It's not like they're pricing people out any more than they were already. They just can't afford the perception that they're screwing over their most loyal customers.

As for the 2.5% average ticket price hike...from a basketball standpoint it doesn't appear to make much sense but from a business standpoint it does.

The Blazers have to protect their die-hard customer base because that's all they have left at this point. The team just isn't good enough to draw hordes of casual fans. The flip side of this: absent the overt screwing mentioned above, the die-hards buying tickets now will stick with the team no matter what. That includes absorbing small price increases. 2.5% isn't going to make or break the decision for most fanatics.

At some point the team will get better, drawing casual fans back. Do you want to wait until then to raise your ticket prices? If so, you've forced yourself into a single, large increase which is guaranteed to draw the worst kind of negative attention. Plus you've foisted that rate hike onto the most fragile, shallow-rooted portion of your fan base just when they were getting back into the team. That's not a sound plan.

It makes more sense to raise prices gradually between now and then so when that comeback moment arrives, the casual fan is already conditioned to view the ticket as valuable. If I paid $20 for a ticket this year and you raise it to $30 I'm angry because at the peak of my excitement (and return) that ticket was worth $20. But if I paid $30 to begin with I'll keep paying it without complaint. In fact if the team gets better I'll consider it a bargain: more return for the same money.

Establishing and maintaining that baseline expectation of ticket value is one of the keys to the financial health of the franchise. This requirement is independent of the win-loss record and frankly is just as important as any draft or trade discussion. If the Blazers can't figure out how to make money in this market...well...I don't need to tell you what kind of discussions will follow.

While we're on the subject of ticket value and rising prices, I'm going to offer some free advice to the team here. This is just one person's perspective, but I think it's an integral part of any discussion of ticket sales.

Assertion #1: This franchise has been built on the back of a distinctive fanbase. Portland basketball culture has its own flavor.

Assertion #2: Except for the occasional Gary Glitter-fueled timeout, the Rose Garden atmosphere neither reflects nor reinforces that culture. The Blazers aren't adding enough distinguishing value to the in-arena experience.

Conclusion: This helps define Rose Garden attendance as a disposable, rather than integral, part of the fan experience. That's a serious shortcoming when you're forecasting price increases in the middle of a team rebuild.

The Blazers do offer perks to season ticket holders, meet and greets and the like. But those events are by definition infrequent, available only to a few, and apart from the normal arena experience. Yet these infrequent, separate events are the only value added to the purchase of a ticket unless you happen to win a free pizza or something. 99% of attendees pay "x" dollars, redeem their tickets, and hope the game is good, because that's it. There is NO reason to attend a live event--nothing distinctive, special, or bonding about the in-arena experience--outside of what happens on the court itself. That's just lazy. The Blazers are missing opportunities to make their tickets seem more valuable independent of the win-loss record of the team.

Let's start with the ceaseless cacophony in the arena on game nights. My son is now a year younger than I was when I watched my first Blazer game. I'd love to pass on my passion for the team to him. That may yet happen, but it's not going to happen in the Rose Garden. The noise is so loud and so constant that I'm afraid it would frighten him. I can't imagine taking him to the arena until he's 2-3 years older at least.

Even looking forward to a time when he's older, I doubt the actual in-arena experience will be that enjoyable for us. With every spare moment filled with scoreboard noise there's no opportunity to talk to the person in the seat next to you. If and when I do take my son I can't explain to him who the players are or how the game works. I can't tell him about how I used to watch Maurice Lucas or Clyde Drexler the same way he's now watching LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. I can't teach him about the game. I can't even tell him who LeBron James is. Nor can he share his impressions and questions with me. So what's the point of us going together? Tickets are not valuable to me and my family because I can't take my child with me and have a meaningful, interactive experience.

If I were taking a girlfriend on a date it'd be the same story. We'd both sit there watching the same thing while separated by a wall of sound, me having to shout in her ear in order to communicate. If she didn't like the game already there would be no way to convince her to like it, nor to come again.

The story doesn't change if I were coming with basketball buddies, well-versed in the game already. We can't talk advanced stats, critique the defense, coach from the stands. God forbid there should be three or four of us instead of two. The guy in the seat right next to me can't hear me half the time. The guy two seats down might as well not exist.

Every year we send kids to Blazer's Edge Night. We're still waiting on the final tally this year but it'll top 770. I see them. I hear them shouting during the game. But if I want to have any meaningful conversation with the kids or their teachers it had better happen before the game starts or maybe during a lull at halftime.

From time to time our site will hold live get-together nights, meet-and-greets for us and our readers. We made the mistake of doing the first couple at the arena, at games. Plenty of people came. Nobody met and nobody greeted, for all these same reasons. The event only worked when we moved to a local establishment with TV's to watch a road game together. Everybody loved that. We brought the house down.

I believe in the value of drama, music, intros, announcers pumping up the crowd. Skillfully applied these add to the excitement and communal experience. The last few times I've been to the Rose Garden they have not been skillfully applied. It's like the scoreboard operator presses a button each timeout and something else comes tumbling out of the dump truck onto the crowd.

Unless something significant happens on the court, Rose Garden patrons find themselves fighting the arena atmosphere instead of being drawn together by it. The noise is hostile to any attempt to build the kind of camaraderie and culture that would give people a reason to come back whether or not the on-court product met expectations. I'm a knowledgeable, interested, devoted follower of the Portland Trail Blazers. I cannot help create more knowledgeable, interested, and devoted followers through shared experience at a Blazer game. Nor will they pick it up from the environment unless that particular game dazzles. That's sad.

A more selective attitude towards timeout "entertainment" would be a good first step, but it's not enough. The Blazers should be doing more, capitalizing on their opportunities, bringing a positive atmosphere to the arena that would make each game meaningful and lure people back in its own right.

Why aren't the Blazers advertising family nights, date nights, buddy nights the same way stores offer family-friendly checkout aisles without all the candy and such? It would be cool if people knew they could bring a five-year-old to a particular game, see some exciting things on the scoreboard, but also have some time to talk and process through the action. Throw in a bobblehead or shirt for anyone under the age of 12, add in a free second pop with the purchase of the first and you're set. On the way out of the arena, how many of those five-year-olds would be asking when they could go again? And how many parents would realize that they could actually bond with their children in this way instead of just sitting in front of a glorified spectacle that they watched simultaneously on separate islands? (An experience they could duplicate with far less trouble and expense at home, by the way.) How many fans do you create for life by catching them young? Five years old combined with a 78.2 year life expectancy for the American male equals a potential 73.2 seasons of ticket sales.

Further, I'd wager that the in-arena scoreboard stuff in Portland is not much different than in Houston or Charlotte or Philadelphia. The whole setup reeks of, "It doesn't matter who you are...here's the program and you'll like it. Now cheer!" It's kindergarten-level pap played at a volume that's too loud to let actual kindergarteners enjoy it. Again this isn't value added to the experience, it's value detracted.

The Blazers are missing a huge chance to foster the communal feeling, centered around basketball, that built the franchise in the first place.

  • Why not spend one timeout each game with a short video on a basic basketball concept, like the pick and roll? You could see it on the screen, then watch for it in the game. You learn something about basketball. You feel smarter and more engaged in the process, more connected to the event and its participants.
  • Or for that matter, how many people might come early to the arena if they knew that after the teams did their initial warmups, a Blazer coach or scout would take a microphone and run a 10-minute demonstration of one of those basketball concepts? You could talk offensive and defensive principles, boxing out, show the lines on the court...it'd probably take you four years of home games to exhaust the possibilities. There would always be another reason to come.
  • How about 30-60 second interviews with past Blazer players and coaches about what's special about playing in Portland to be shown during timeouts?
  • How about filming season-ticket-holder interviews of the same length where people talk about their history with the team, then showing those stories on the scoreboard?
  • What about a documentary of significant Blazer seasons broken up into 60-second episodes, one episode aired each game? Who wouldn't want to see the championship story unfold night by night or relive the Drexler ascendancy? They already do some "Memorable Moments", but continuity in an unfolding story would make you feel like you miss something whenever you miss a game.

I can't imagine this kind of video package costing much more than the in-house scoreboard material the Blazers use already. But this material adds richness and texture to the viewing experience that you can't get at home...building the culture, making you feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself.

Each home game brings a captive audience sitting in front of a monstrous screen ready to absorb anything the franchise chooses to display. They do less than nothing with this opportunity. They divide and separate instead of uniting and bonding. They fall back on tired, programmatic cliches instead of proclaiming their distinctive message. Given the chance to add value to the arena experience at little or no cost, to capitalize on the one asset that makes their franchise different than everyone else's--the Portland culture and fanbase--they instead choose to pop in a canned playlist, crank the volume, and go back to doing whatever else they were doing before you got there.

Ironically, that's probably getting on the phone and trying to convince you that coming to the arena 41 times a year is a refreshing, distinctive, worthwhile experience.

If the Blazers need to raise ticket prices, so be it. Every franchise does. But wouldn't it be prudent to put in a little work to make the purchase decision come down to more than a dollar-to-win ratio? It's not that hard if you understand the fan dynamic. But if they do understand it, they certainly haven't capitalized fully.

Keep sending your Mailbag questions to the e-mail address below. Put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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